Premier of Australia’s Victoria State Apologizes for Historic Homosexuality Convictions

Jim Burroway

May 24th, 2016

The word “amazing” is so overused. Everyone is Amazing! Everything is Amazing! I’ve really come to hate the word and roll my eyes quite visibly whenever I hear someone say it.

With that said…. okay, this is amazing.

David Andrews, the Premiere of Victoria, formally apologized for the “abominable” laws which had criminalized gay relationships. He spoke before the state’s Parliament in Melbourne for nearly twenty minutes.  “Please, let these words rest forever in our records. On behalf of the parliament, the government and the people of Victoria, for the laws we passed and the lives we ruined, and the standards we set, we are so sorry. Humbly, deeply sorry”

“This won’t erase the injustice, but it is an accurate statement of what I believe today — that these convictions should never have happened,” added Andrews, who described the laws as “nothing less than official state-sanctioned homophobia”.

Citing several examples from newspapers from 1977, 1976, 1967, 1961, 1937 and 1936, Andrews lamented that the law required the courts, police, media and the general public “to be bigoted.” “I can’t possibly explain why we made these laws, and clung to them, and fought for them. For decades, we were obsessed with the private mysteries of men. And so we jailed them, we harmed them, and in turn, they harmed themselves….”

The formal apology came after Victoria began allowing those with convictions under these anti-gay laws to have their records expunged. Six men have done so, with many others still going through the process. The Guardian highlighted the case of Tom Andrews, who was convicted of the anti-gay statute after his boss raped him at the age of 14. When Tom Anderson went to police to report the rape, police ended up charging Anderson with gross indecency and buggery.

He went before the children’s court in 1977 and was told to plead guilty and apologise for his perverted acts.

“I actually had no idea what was happening to me. I couldn’t comprehend what was going on,” Anderson told KIIS radio on Tuesday. “To me it’s going to be a big acknowledgement, that finally a formal apology, a formal statement saying that I did nothing wrong,” Anderson said.

Anderson, now in his mid-50s, has lived his whole life trying to work out what he did wrong, and why he was charged for reporting his sexual assault. “I think a lot of young people today would really fail to comprehend … there are still people alive who have suffered the indignity of being charged with [the] crimes,” Anderson said.

Victoria’s anti-gay laws were repealed in 1981. Victoria’s laws were particularly harsh; its buggery law included the death penalty until 1949. After that, the penalty was up to 15 years in prison. In 1961, Victoria added an additional law against homosexual soliciting and “loitering for homosexual purposes.” According to one report (PDF), “Crime statistics show that the law against buggery was enforced 172 times in 1973, 81 times in 1974 and 92 times in 1975.”

Here is a transcription of Premiere Andrews’s apology:

…These laws did not just punish homosexual acts. They punished homosexual thought. They have no place in a liberal democracy. They have no place anywhere. The Victorian parliament and the Victorian government were at fault. For this we are sorry. Oh behalf of this House, we express our deepest regret.

Speaker – it’s never too late to put things right. It’s never too late to say sorry – and mean it.

That’s what brings us all to the heart of our democracy today, here in this parliament where, over the course of decades, a powerful prejudice was written into law. A prejudice that ruined lives. A prejudice that prevails in different ways, even still. That law was written in our name – as representatives, and as Victorians. And that law was enforced by the very democratic system to which we call ourselves faithful.

So it is our responsibility to prove that the parliament that engineered this prejudice can also be the parliament that ends it. That starts with acknowledging the offences of the past, admitting the failings of the present, and building a society for the future that is strong and fair and just.

In doing so, Speaker, we’ll have shown this moment to be no mere gesture. In doing so, we’ll have proven that the dignity and bravery of generations of Victorians wasn’t simply for nought. And that, I hope, will be the greatest comfort of all.

Speaker, there is no more simple an acknowledgement than this: There was a time in our history when we turned thousands of ordinary young men into criminals. And it was profoundly and unimaginably wrong.

That such a thing could have occurred – once, perhaps a century ago – would not surprise most Victorians. Well Speaker, I hold here an article that reports the random arrest of 15 men. “Police Blitz Catches Homosexuals.” That’s what the headline reads. And said a police officer: “We just seem to find homosexuals loitering wherever we go.”  This was published in Melbourne’s biggest-selling weekly newspaper, not a hundred years ago Speaker, but in 1976.

A decade earlier, in 1967, a local paper said that a dozen men would soon face court for – quote – “morals offences”, and urged the public to report homosexuals to the police with a minimum of delay.

A generation earlier, in 1937, Judge MacIndoe said John, a man in his 20s, was “not quite sane”, and gaoled him for three months on a charge of gross indecency.

In 1936, Jack, a working man from Sale, faced a Melbourne court on the same charge – and he was gaoled for ten years.

This, Speaker, is the society that we built. And it would be easy to blame the courts, or the media, or the police, or the public even. It is easy for us to condemn their bigotry.  But the law required them to be bigoted. And those laws, Speaker were struck here, where I stand. One of those laws even earned the label abominable, not something we use very often in our statute books.

And in 1961 alone, 40 Victorian men were charged with it. In the same year, a minor offence was created that shook just as many lives. The penalty was $600 in today’s terms, or one month imprisonment. The charge? ‘Loitering for homosexual purposes.’

This was the offence used to justify that random police blitz I spoke about earlier, back in 1976. A witness said: “Young policemen were sent to entrap suspected homosexuals, officers dressed in swimwear engaging other men in conversation. When the policeman was satisfied the person was homosexual, an arrest was made.”

When we began this process, Speaker, I expected to be offering an apology to people persecuted for homosexual acts. But it has become clear to me that the State also persecuted against homosexual thought. Loitering for homosexual purposes is a thought crime. And in the summer in 1976, in one location alone, one hundred men were targeted under this violation of thought; something for which there was no possible defence.

All in our lifetimes, Speaker. All in our lifetimes. And what’s more, in our name: young people, old people, thousands and thousands of people.

I suppose it’s rare when you can’t even begin to conceive what was on the minds of our forebears in this place. But I look back at those statutes and I am dumbfounded. I can’t possibly explain why we made these laws, and clung to them, and fought for them. For decades, we were obsessed with the private mysteries of men. And so we jailed them, we harmed them, and in turn, they harmed themselves.

Speaker, it is the first responsibility of a government to keep people safe. But the government didn’t keep LGBTI people safe. The government invalidated their humanity and cast them into a nightmare. And those who live today are the survivors of nothing less — nothing less — xthan a campaign of destruction, led by the might of the state.

Speaker, I had the privilege of meeting with four of those survivors recently. One of them was Noel Tovey. He was sent to Pentridge in 1951. On more than one occasion in jail, he planned his suicide.

“Max was singing an aria from La Traviata when the police arrived,” he recalled in his book. “I was very naive. I knew having sex with men was against the law but I didn’t understand why it was a crime. At the hearing, the judge said, ‘You have been charged with the abominable crime of buggery. How do you plead?’ The maximum sentence was fifteen years. Afterwards, only two people would talk to me. I couldn’t get a job. I was a known criminal. And it’s ironic: eventually I would have been forgiven by everyone if I had murdered Max, but no one could forgive me for having sex with him.”

And Noel, in his own words, quite amazingly as a sign of strength, calls himself “one of the lucky ones.”

I also met Terry Kennedy. He was 18 years old when he was arrested, Speaker. “When I wanted to go overseas”, Terry told me, “and when I wanted to start my own business, there was always that dreaded question: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a criminal offense?'” As Terry said, “I lied, of course. Then the phone rang one day. It was an inspector from the St. Kilda police station. He’d found me out. With a curse like that always lurking over our heads, we always had to ask ourselves this question: just how far can I go today?”

Speaker, that’s the sort of question which, in some form or another, must have been asked by almost every single LGBTI person. It is still asked today – by teenagers in the schoolyard; by adults in the family home. Yes, the law was unjust, but it is wrong to think its only victims were those who faced its sanction. The fact is: these laws cast a dark and paralysing pall over everyone who ever felt like they were different. The fact is: these laws represented nothing less than official, state-sanctioned homophobia.

And we wonder why, Speaker – we wonder why gay and lesbian and bi and trans teenagers are still the target of red-hot hatred. We wonder why hundreds of thousands of Australians are still formally excluded from something as basic and decent as a formal celebration of their love for each other. And we wonder why so many people are still forced to drape their lives in shame. Shame, that deeply personal condition, described by Peter McEwen as “the feeling of not being good enough.”

Peter was arrested in 1967. He soon fled overseas to escape that time in his life.

The fourth man I spoke to last week, Tom Anderson, met his own private terror when he was 14. For weeks, he was routinely sexually assaulted by his employer, his boss – a man in his 40s. His parents, in all good faith, took Tom down to the local police station to make a formal statement and to get his employer, this predator, charged. And of course he was. But, Speaker, so was Tom. This child victim of sexual assault was charged with one count of buggery and two counts of gross indecency.

Can you believe, Speaker, that that the year was 1977? Today, Tom carries with him a quiet bravery that is hard to put into words. And he told me about the time – one day, just a few years ago – when his home was burgled. “I’m a grown man”, he said, “but the moment the police came around to inspect the house, and I opened the door. I became that 14-year-old boy again. I couldn’t talk. I was frozen. I was a grown man and I couldn’t talk.”

This was life for innocent people like Tom. We told them they were fugitives living outside the law. We gave them no safe place to find themselves or find each other. And we made sure they couldn’t trust a soul. Not even their family.

A life like that: what do you think that does to a human being? What do you think it does to their ability to find purpose, to hold themselves with confidence, to be happy, to be social, to be free? Don’t tell me that these laws were simply a suppression of sex.

This was a suppression of spirit, a denial of love, and it lives on today. While the laws were terminated in the 1980s, they still remain next to the names of so many men. Most of them dead are now gone. But a criminal conviction is engraved upon their place in history. Speaker, I can inform the House and all Honourable Members that six men have now successfully applied to expunge these convictions from their record. Speaker, many more have begun the process.

This won’t erase the injustice, but it is an accurate statement of what I believe today: that these convictions should never have happened; that these charges should be deleted as if they never existed, and that their subjects can call themselves once again law-abiding Victorians.

Expungement is one thing, but these victims won’t find their salvation in this alone. They are each and every one of them, Speaker, owed hope. And all four of the men I met told me they only began to find that hope when they met people who were just like them.

Peter McEwen, back in the country and emerging from years of shame, started meeting weekly with some gay friends at university in 1972. “We realised we were all outlaws together,” he said, “and we learnt to say that we are good. We learnt to say ‘black is beautiful, women are strong – and gay is good.’ Once I learnt I was good, it led me to question everyone who said I was evil and sick.” He went on: “Gay men had taken on board the shame. Through each other we found our pride.”

Then he paused for a second — and I will carry this with me forever — he paused for a second and he said to me Speaker: “Pride is the opposite of shame.”

He’s right. Pride is not a cold acceptance, it’s a celebration. It’s about wearing your colours and baring your character. The mere expression of pride was an act of sheer defiance.

These people we speak about, they weren’t just fighting for the right to be equal. They were fighting for the right to be different. And I want everyone in this state, young or old, to know that you, too, have that right. You were born with that right. And being who you are is good enough for me , and it’s good enough for all of us. Here in Victoria, equality is not negotiable. Here, you can be different from everybody else, but still be treated the same as everybody else. Because we believe in fairness. We believe in honesty, too – so we have to acknowledge this:

For the time being, we can’t promise things will be easy. Tomorrow, a young bloke will get hurt. Tomorrow, a parent will turn their back on their child. Tomorrow, a loving couple and their beautiful baby will be met with a stare of contempt. Tomorrow, a trans woman will be turned away from a job interview. And tomorrow, a gay teenager will think about ending his own life.

That’s the truth, Speaker. There is so much more we need to do to make things right. Until then, we can’t promise things will be easy. Far from it. We can’t guarantee that everyone in your life will respect the way you want to live it. And we can’t expect you to make what must be a terrifying plunge until you know the time is right.

But just know that whenever that time comes, you have a government and a parliament that is on your side. You have a government that is trying to make the state a safer place in the classroom, in the workplace. You have a government that is trying to eradicate a culture of bullying and harassment so that the next generation of children are never old enough to experience it. You have a government that sees these indisputable statistics of LGBTI self-harm, of suicide, and commits to their complete upheaval. You have a government that believes you’re free to be who you are, and to marry the person you love. And you have a government that knows just one life saved is worth all the effort.

Speaker, as part of this process, I learnt that two women were convicted for offensive behaviour in the 1970s for holding hands – on a tram. So let me finish by saying this: If you are a member of the LGBTI community, and there’s someone in your life that you love – a partner or a friend – then do me a favour. Next time you’re on a tram in Melbourne, hold their hand. Do it with pride and defiance. Because you have that freedom. And here in the progressive capital of our nation, I can think of nothing more Victorian than that.

Speaker, it’s been a life of struggle for generations of Victorians. As representatives, we take full responsibility. We criminalised homosexual thoughts and deeds. We validated homophobic words and acts. And we set the tone for a society that ruthlessly punished the differences with a short sentence in prison, and a life sentence of shame. From now on, Speaker, that shame is ours.

This parliament and this government are to be formally held to account for designing a culture of darkness and shame. And those who faced its sanction, and lived in fear, are to be formally recognised for their relentless pursuit of freedom and love.

It all started here and it will end here, too. To our knowledge, no jurisdiction in the world has ever offered a full and formal apology for laws like these. So please, let these words rest forever in our records:

On behalf of the parliament, the government and the people of Victoria, for the laws we passed and the lives we ruined, and the standards we set, we are so sorry — humbly, deeply, sorry.”

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